Photo: Barb Colligon
They’re all that matters in soccer.
It is a simple game in that respect. The team with the most goals wins.
Play to Win
Before we begin, yes, there is plenty of merit in teaching a young, developing team to grind and sweat out a valuable road draw. But in a meaningless game against a weak opponent before a thin crowd, after dominating from the opening whistle? That’s a game the Union needed to win, and that was the exact scenario Saturday night in New England.
With the Union pressing late in the game to find the opening and, in all likelihood, closing goal, John Hackworth stuck with the same conservative tactics that have led his team to 3 of a possible 18 points, stretching back to August 4 in Montreal. After Jack McInerney’s midweek struggles, the no-longer-interim Hackworth swapped in Antoine Hoppenot to lead the attacking line.
With Freddy Adu and Michael Farfan looking to orchestrate play from the center of midfield and Danny Cruz’s studs seemingly stapled to the touchline for the opening 45 minutes, Hoppenot, like McInerney, was asked to shoulder the offensive burden. It did not work.
After all, this is Antoine Hoppenot, the 5-8 rookie acquired in the third round of the 2012 Supplemental Draft. This is meant as no slight to the fiery, energetic Hoppenot, who in his rookie campaign has shown enough pace, intensity and desire to guarantee he will be around for years to come.
But to run as a lone striker in a league match? Surely the Union could offer him more support than what was afforded Saturday. The Union’s continue to operate under the misguided belief that, whether it be McInerney or Hoppenot at the top of the formation, the rest of the side should clear out, leaving their striker to run alone against a pair of centerbacks. Lionard Pajoy was far from the perfect striker, but at least he demanded a warm body in coverage, stretching the field and keeping at least one defender from drifting into the center of the pitch. As it stood Saturday, New England was able to focus all their defensive resources on Hoppenot, which was far too much attention for the diminutive striker to overcome.
Regardless of what has happened up until this point, Chandler Hoffman, Josue Martinez, Hoppenot and McInerney compose the attacking core of the Union roster. With the remainder of the season reduced solely to a building exercise towards an improved 2013, each of those four players must see minutes — together.
Three questionable substitutions
For the second straight match, Hackworth chose to leave two defensive midfielders on the pitch with time winding down and the Union in need of a goal. When asked for his logic following Saturday’s draw, the Union manager said:
“We needed to respect New England; they’re a good team. We’re at New England, and you could tell in the last 10 minutes they were pushing. They wanted to get three points as bad as we did. So it wasn’t an opportunity where we (were going) to make a foolish decision by taking off players that were playing very well and attacking.”
While he is correct in his assertion that New England would not fade quietly into the night, defending with four in the back and only one defensive midfielder hardly sounds like throwing caution to the wind. Replacing Michael Lahoud with Jack McInerney would have put a grand total of two strikers on the pitch, a far cry from Peter Nowak’s “throw the kitchen sink at them” approach to late game tactics, in which sometimes as many as four strikers found their way on to the pitch.
Hackworth still had an opportunity to go for all three points, but when he pulled Freddy Adu for Keon Daniel, the coach’s intentions were clear. For all of his involvement as perhaps the greatest lightning rod in the Union’s brief history, Adu had done his job on Saturday night, certainly enough so to see out the result. The inclusion of the attack-minded Roger Torres could have kept the Union offense turning over, where Daniel’s slow, deliberate approach ceded too much territory and possession to the Revs. In attempting to see out a 0-0 result, Hackworth turned off the pressure, nearly handing New England the time and space required to snatch a late three points.
By the time Martinez replaced Cruz up front, it was a simple matter of fresh legs to chase defensively up top, and with the Union bunkered in, the match result was nearly final.
Freddy Adu & Michael Farfan
There is something there. With Adu in a more advanced, central role and Farfan moving around him, the Union may have found their most dangerous playmaking tandem. While Adu was short and sweet, dealing out the balls nearly as quickly as he received, Farfan attacked space on either wing, setting up great chances that unfortunately went begging. Deployed in the same midfield, the Union’s opponents struggled to pack the center of the pitch with enough bodies to keep the pair under wraps without abandoning the flanks and leaving Williams and Gabriel Farfan to maraud up their respective wings unchallenged in support of the wing forward pairing du jour.
And in Adu and Farfan, the Union have, should they continue to raise their level, two of the best young table setters in the league.
The game is about goals and with a solid defense and two playmakers in place, it is incumbent on Hackworth to fill his forward line with players who can put the ball in the back of the net.
Zac MacMath – 5.5
Smartly off his line to beat Bengtson to the spot in the late going, MacMath also went post to post in denying Rowe and retaining his clean sheet. A clean sheet is a clean sheet. Distribution remains a spot of concern, however. Too many balls were returned directly to the Revs, if they did not go straight into touch.
Sheanon Williams – 6.5
Eager and aggressive up the right flank, Williams dropped deep to support Okugo and demanded the ball. Pushing play at every opportunity, Williams kept the dangerous Lee Nguyen on the back foot, while lining up a few shots of his own. Finding even more space when Danny Cruz cut into the center of the pitch, the fleet-footed Williams outran Kevin Alston in the kind of energetic performance that Union fans have been missing from Williams since his toe injury.
Amobi Okugo – 7
Top performance from the centerback who was not only solid and consistent at the back, but also pushed forward and nearly opened his professional account. His header off the crossbar was agonizing enough, but seeing Matt Reis keep his feet near enough the ground to smother his low effort minutes later is enough to leave the young defender wondering what he must do to register his first goal for the Union. Tidy as ever out of the back, Okugo was on the scene for critical blocked shots and tackles before turning his eyes forward to feed plenty of ball to Adu and Michael Farfan in the middle of the pitch as they looked to build quickly.
Carlos Valdes – 6
Nursing a thigh injury sustained midweek, the Union captain was more subdued than usual, but he was no less effective. Kept a tight handle on Bengtson throughout, putting in a series of vital challenges. His regular sharpness and aggression seemed to be missing, but the Revs brought little attacking punch to the table.
Gabriel Farfan – 5.5
For all his skill on the ball, Farfan continues to struggle with his delivery into the box, frequently overcooking his efforts. He did well to keep the pressure high on the spectacularly poor Florian Lechner, but Farfan will have wished he had more chances to challenge the lead-footed fullback. All the talk from the match can be about his offensive play because defensively, Farfan ran Fernando Cardenas off the park, leaving the midfielder with nothing to look at going forward.
Brian Carroll – 5.5
Had very little work to do against a timid Revolution side, allowing him to push forward into offense more than usual. Threaded a perfect through ball into Hoppenot as he looked to lead his team from the front. Should have put the Union in the lead, but missed a sitter. Chose power on his bouncing volley, driving the ball high into Reis’ shoulder, when a more predatory attacker might have calmly sidefooted home. Has proved his defensive credentials sufficiently to operate alone at the base of the midfield, something he will likely have to do if the Union are to break out of their current offensive funk.
Michael Lahoud – 5
Plenty of hustle from the Union’s other defensive midfielder, but turned the ball over too frequently, both with his passing and dribbling. Often halted his side’s attacking ambitions when the break was on, and despite being a strong defensive player, should have gone off with the first substitution were the Union serious about playing for the win.
Freddy Adu – 6.5
Union fans won’t care what it was that refocused Adu if he continues to put in performances like he did Saturday. Eager to move the ball, pick out runners and keep the Union offense flowing, Adu set aside the fancy footwork in favor of a simple, yet effective, passing arsenal. The interplay between Adu and Michael Farfan should be watched closely given that, between their two sets of skills, the pair could grow to wreak havoc on MLS defenses.
Danny Cruz – 3.5
Continues to give maximum effort while the quality of his play lags behind. Must leave his touchline more frequently to support the central striker. His dribbling and crossing leave a lot to be desired and will likely benefit the most from the extra week off, as he looks to find better chemistry with his teammates so that he can refocus on his own skills.
Antoine Hoppenot – 3.5
Was always going to struggle under the weight of leading the Union offense by his lonesome. Nearly bagged the critical goal less than a minute into the second half, but after looking up to check that he was onside, struggled to compose himself and finish, shooting too close to Reis. Must continue to refine his sharpness in front of goal, since true finishers must make their mark with only one or two chances. Worked hard to show in the midfield with his back to goal, but his touch was heavy and clumsy on too many occasions, overhitting his pass or simply losing possession.
Michael Farfan – 6.5
Though he began the match on the left wing, Farfan quickly found his way into the center of the pitch, where he and Adu spread the field and kept the Revolution on the back foot. Equally capable of beating a defender with his quick feet, as Clyde Simms learned, or with an inch-perfect through ball, Farfan must be on the pitch for the Union. It’s now up to Hackworth and Co. to determine the Union’s most dangerous attacking player’s best role and fill in the rest of the pieces, rather than moving him to whatever spot remains vacant.
Jack McInerney – 3.5
Suffered much the same fate as Hoppenot before him as he toiled in isolation up front, despite the Union’s need for a goal. Made a hash of his best chance, pushing the ball too far ahead of him when he ran in on Stephen McCarthy. McInerney is unlikely to find consistency until he is more confident on the ball. For now, his dribbling, passing and shooting touch all appear off.
Keon Daniel – 3
Methodical as ever, Daniel slowed down the game without helping the Union to improve their grasp on it. With each indifferent performance, the fan favorite of 2011 seems further and further in the rear view.
Josue Martinez – 2.5
The young Costa Rican has not been given a lot of opportunities to impress, but he also has done very little to justify a longer look. Failed to complete a single pass in roughly 10 minutes of work, while straying offside and conceding a foul. Still, the Union have nothing but time for the rest of 2012. Until he is given a prolonged look at his preferred position, Martinez cannot be written off.
Drew Fischer – 7
About as much as could be expected from a referee in his fourth MLS match, Fischer kept play moving and was for the most part thankfully invisible. Might have had a closer look when Michael Farfan was hauled down in the box by Alston and definitely could have handed Nguyen a second yellow for his takedown on the Union playmaker late in the match, but both were 50-50 decisions. There is nothing wrong with a referee trying to impose himself as little as possible on the proceedings.
Preferred lineup for the Union’s trip to Toronto FC on Saturday, September 15
MacMath; Williams, Okugo, Valdes, G. Farfan; Carroll, M. Farfan, Adu; Martinez, McInerney, Hoffman